Masterchef's Adam Liaw has a new cookbook out. Here he chats to Virginia Ginnane.
Adam Liaw first exposed Australians to Asian cooking at a young age.
As a Chinese Malaysian boy growing up in Adelaide, he would tuck into fried rice from his thermos at lunchtime, while his mates would eat cheese sandwiches.
"It was very different," says the winner of the 2010 MasterChef Australia TV series.
Now with his first book, Two Asian Kitchens, the 32-year-old is hoping to introduce Asian cooking to a wider audience.
But when he considered the kind of book he wanted to write - which was part of the MasterChef prize, plus $100,000 as well as work experience in some of Australia's top restaurants - he didn't want it just to be a list of his favourite dishes.
"It's a book I want people to actually cook a lot of dishes from," Liaw says.
"I wrote it specifically for an audience who is interested in Asian food."
Liaw wants his readers to learn as they cook, providing a pictorial glossary of ingredients such as strips of tangerine benishouga (red pickled ginger) and chunks of taupe belacan (dried shrimp paste).
"There are a lot of different levels there," says Liaw, who guides his reader though the techniques of rice-making, tempura, stock-making and stir-frying in preparation for the dishes ahead.
And the book is divided into two sections: The Old Kitchen and The New Kitchen.
"I wanted to do traditional recipes to show the history of the cooking and then modern recipes, which is more how I cook now."
And it's not just Malaysian-influenced recipes from the Penang-born chef. Dishes from Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and China have influenced Liaw's palate, as he offers retakes of the classics such as Beef Rendang and Katsudon (pork cutlet with rice and egg sauce).
Then there are some curious combinations in the modern section such as camembert cheese with deep-fried tofu puffs, dribbled with rich dengaku miso.
A recipe in the book that is redolent of his grandfather's Chinese Malaysian heritage is Hainanese Chicken Rice (recipe below) - a dish that his grandmother lovingly prepared for his family.
Liaw says cooking has been a big part of his family heritage, and by his early teens, he regularly cooked for his extended family in Adelaide. His mother, Dr Joyce Hill who now lives in Beijing, had re-married and there were six children around the dinner table.
At 14, when his mother moved to New Zealand, Liaw moved in with his grandmother who became the great fix for his addiction to cooking.
"She has a really tasty yet simple way of cooking, and it's something I still strive for."
By 16, Liaw was at university.
"I skipped a few years in the schooling process," he says modestly, and enrolled in Science/Law at the University of Adelaide, which started him on a path that later would link up with food.
"I didn't understand the connection until a lot later when I started doing a lot of reading to understand the science of cooking."
When Liaw moved to Japan as a corporate lawyer in 2004, he discovered izakayas, the equivalent of an Aussie pub serving a range of dishes and lots of beer.
He also stumbled across a second-hand book from the 1950s called Cooking Bold and Fearless, which opened up his approach to cooking.
"It changed my perception about the kinds of food people were cooking," Liaw says.
It would also finally change his life. The new approach to food further fuelled his passion for food and in 2009 he auditioned for Channel Ten's MasterChef, dropped out twice before filming began while he weighed up the risk of losing his legal career and his life in Japan.
"It was a bit daunting at the time. It was a tough decision," Liaw recalls.
But cooking called and he's never looked back.
With his own izakaya about to open in Surry Hills in August, Liaw has cooked up a whole new life for himself.
"It's totally different to what it was.
"I love what I'm doing, I wouldn't give it up for the world."
Hainanese Chicken Rice
Preparation: 1 hour
Cooking: 50 minutes + 30 minutes standing
1 whole chicken (about 1.5 kg), at room temperature
5 whole new garlics, plus 2 cloves, chopped
7 thick slices ginger, unpeeled
1 tbsp sesame oil
675g jasmine rice
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tbsp light soy sauce
coriander, sliced cucumber and sliced spring onion, to serve
6 red birds-eye chillies
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp caster sugar
1/4 tsp sea salt flakes
1 tsp lemon juice
Spring onion and ginger oil:
4 spring onions, thinly sliced
2 tbsp grated ginger
1/2 tsp sea salt flakes
3 tbsp neutral-flavoured oil
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp light soy sauce
1. Trim any visible fat from the chicken. Roughly chop the fat and put in a small saucepan. Cook over very low heat for about 1 hour until the liquid fat renders away. Pour off and keep the liquid fat as it pools. (You do not need the crispy pieces of fried fat for this dish, but they are excellent served over cooked noodles.)
2. Meanwhile, put the whole garlic cloves and 5 slices of ginger in the cavity of the chicken and place breast-side-down in a large pot. Cover with water and bring to a low simmer. Simmer for 25 minutes, then cover the pot and turn off the heat. Leave for 30 minutes, then lift out the chicken, keeping the poaching stock. Brush the chicken skin with sesame oil and wrap with plastic wrap.
3. Heat 1 tbsp of the chicken fat in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and remaining 2 slices of ginger and stir-fry until fragrant. Add the rice and toss until well coated and turning opaque. Add 1.25 litres of the reserved chicken stock, the salt and soy sauce. (Follow the instructions in the book to make perfectly cooked rice.) Alternatively, fry the rice first in a wok and then transfer to a rice cooker.
4. To make the chilli sauce, combine chillies, ginger, garlic, sugar and salt in a mortar and pound to a paste. Add the lemon juice and 1-2 tablespoons of hot chicken stock and pound again. Set aside.
5. To make the spring onion and ginger oil, add the spring onion, ginger and salt to a heatproof mortar and pound lightly with the pestle. Heat the oil in a small frying pan until smoking and pour onto the mixture. Once the sizzling stops, combine lightly with the pestle and leave to infuse for a few minutes.
6. To make the dressing, mix the sesame oil and soy sauce with 60ml chicken stock. If you have any remaining chicken stock, season it and add a few spring onion slices. This can be served as a light broth to accompany the meal.
7. Slice the chicken Chinese-style and pour the dressing over it. Scatter with a little coriander and serve with the rice, condiments, broth and cucumber slices.